A few days ago, (20th May, 2012), Bangladesh Army had arranged a seminar along with Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) directorate. The local media made a good coverage as far as I have seen and the discussion entitled ‘Armed Forces and Media’ was candid. The organisers said they hosted the discussion- first of its kind- to ‘strengthen collaboration between the armed forces and representatives of national dailies and television channels’. One of the reports dubbed the event as a symbol of ‘a rare gesture’.
Before going into discussion, I am recalling another news item which was published on November 24, 2009, almost two and a half years ago. Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on 23rd November had said her government was ‘going to formulate a specific media policy soon regarding media publicity on army and defence’ (The Daily Star). She also said that her government had taken steps to make Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR) Directorate effective and time befitting by reconstituting its existing organisational structure. That was the Formation Commanders’ Conference-2009 of Bangladesh Army at the Army Headquarters in Dhaka Cantonment. After a glimpse on the past, I will now talk about the present before I come back to this point later.
I have gone through three media reports and found out that the Army Officials at the discussion raised following points:
- The armed forces have some limitations in providing information on time;
- The Army is trying to provide the information on time, particularly in case of accidents;
- The media should be more responsible as it was one of the most important elements of the nation building process;
- The relationship between the military and media should be strengthened;
- The media to publish reports with accuracy and clarity, particularly issues to do with the armed forces as ‘it is sensitive’;
- The Army authorities were trying to ensure accurate and free flow of information in order to bridge the gap between the media and armed forces;
- Lot to be done to keep the army free from various fronts of ongoing social degradation (Issue of army personnel held on crime charges);
- The military is also set to develop quite a number of newsmen working with different electronics and print media as defence correspondents through providing training to them gradually so that they can make accurate news and analysis on military matters;
- It’s not possible to go forward overlooking the power of media;
- Army wants to strike a balance between their expectations and that of the media;
- Army wants to build a relationship of ‘trust’;
- Disrespectful news about any of their colleagues can hurt them and make them feel low;
A presentation was made by the Director of the ISPR on ‘Role of media, ISPR and the Military’ while journalists and academicians made the following points:
- Institutions like the Bangladesh Press Council should be instituted to maintain the standard of television news;
- Wrong or distorted information was sometimes published or broadcasted because of the delay in providing correct information by the authorities or the ISPR;
- Delayed response from the ISPR to queries; ISPR should respond immediately after any incident took place in the armed forces or any accidents like plane crashes;
However, an ISPR official said facts should be disclosed to the media even if it may be harmful for the institution.
It was a heavyweight programme as the chief of general staff of the Bangladesh Army Lieutenant General Md Mainul Islam, Military Intelligence Director Brigadier General Ridwan Al Mahmud, the Army Headquarters staff officer Lieutenant Colonel Abdullah Al Mamun and ISPR Director Shahinul Islam were present from the side of the Army.
I was bit surprised when I saw the Army arranging press conference (January 19, 2012) to disclose a coup bid by some officers to topple the Sheikh Hasina government. This was a very unlikely event given its previous style of operation; but apparently it turned out to be a move which significantly tells me that there has been a change in the mindset. Obviously they knew the power of the media and now they visibly realise advantages of a new weapon in their arsenal more than the past. It feels so good to believe that things are so far right.
But after two and a half years down the line since the Prime Minister spoke to the Formation Commanders’ Conference, I don’t know what has been implemented. Because, what the ISPR Director told the seminar was quite enough indicative of what has been done.
What I agree with the current policy of the government is that there is no alternative to augment the defence capacity of the country through modernisation of the armed forces. Their capabilities in operational capacity and efficiency are a must. The government allocated Taka 12,134 crore for the FY 2011-12 which is higher than the budget for the FY 2010-11 by Taka 1, 216 crore. They should not be deprived of availing most modern equipment and technology-based military hardware and capabilities. They must not face any limitation in providing information on time. Approximately 9,000 members of three forces are working in peace keeping missions of the United Nations and Bangladesh tops the list of the countries contributing soldiers to the Peace Keeping Mission. The armed forces have not only glorified the image of the country but also made significant contribution to the economy. But the question is how far the public affairs of the armed forces have got? Quite clear it’s not enough. Moreover, if the current capabilities are not enough to meet the demand of the local media, how Bangladeshi armed forces that top the list in the global peacekeeping will enhance their image abroad? There has been media coverage in local newspapers and television channels over the last few years of what contribution Bangladeshi peacekeepers had made in their mission countries. But I have not seen any on BBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera or RT in the recent time. Although they are hard power in nature, Bangladeshi armed forces have also become a source of ‘soft power’ for the country through their contribution in the missions such as in Sierra Leone where Bangla language got the honour of the state language for the contribution of Bangladesh Army. Similar contribution were made in Sudan, Namibia, Cambodia, Somalia, Uganda, Rwanda, Mozambique, former Yugoslavia, Liberia, Haiti, Tajikistan, Western Sahara, Kosovo, Georgia, East Timor, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire and Ethiopia. But a very little achievement is in sight utilising their contribution. So this is not only the limitation of the armed forces, this is simply a lack of farsightedness in Bangladesh’s visionary statesmanship.
The ISPR Director told the discussion that they have to face 30-40 national dailies and 17 plus television channels with their limited manpower. I would say this is not an unmanageable number, but it is a number that cries out for management. Such limitations will disappear with the reform activities according to Forces Goal-2030, the seminar was told. Limitation of manpower is common in any government office as well. Even if there are infrastructural facilities and human resources, often their poor efficiency becomes the poorest at their bosses’ whim. During September-December of 2010, I had an opportunity to impart communication and media relations training to 200 officials of four government ministries/departments (Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development, Ministry of Food & Disaster, The Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General, and the Anti-Corruption Commission). The training programme was funded by the USAID who understands quite well what sorts of challenges are waiting for these officials. Almost half of them were deputy secretary ranking officials who had vast experiences of working with public institutions at the grassroots level. All of them during the three-day training come up with the same notion that their good works get no attention at all while the media run after bad news all the time. At the end of the training, their attitude was: We now know what to do! The same thing occurred when I went to train police officials. Now, the ISPR is in an advantageous position compared to any other public institutions and its media strategy will not be the same on a day of a bad news than that of a regular day. Their understanding on shaping the news agenda before misinformation or disinformation takes a place in the public sphere will surely solve many disasters.
Most important part of the discussion to me was military’s idea to train newsmen as defence correspondents so that they can make accurate news and analysis on military matters. This was my learning from Prof. Philip M. Taylor who in his keynote address delivered at a conference on military-media relations at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in 1995 commented: ‘My own opinion is that the press correspondent is just as good a fellow as any military officer or man who knows a great many secrets, and he will never let you down – not on purpose – but he may let you down if he is not in the picture, merely because his duty to his paper forces him to write something, and that something may be most dangerous. Therefore he must be kept in the picture.’ And in order to keep them in the picture, making them aware of Armed forces practices, their familiarisation of ideas and values of the army will surely help. But the most important part missing here is the understanding of the Armed forces of how media operate, what set media’s agenda and how to shape news in this time of 24*7 news environment on television and on the net through facebook, twitter and blogging.
In her speech in 2009, Sheikh Hasina had mentioned that there had been ‘propaganda centering Bangladesh Army in a section of newspapers and TV channels’, and ‘any negative remarks or discussion on army would hurt the moral courage of all the military personnel.’ She called upon army personnel not to be confused with propaganda. For strategic geopolitical reasons, Bangladeshi armed forces may have to face propaganda all the time. That is not the issue. Capabilities to foil any propaganda by the personnel are the issues of excellence. As Sun Tzu rightly quipped: ‘For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the supreme of excellence. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence.’
The Art of War: Sun Tzu
A Bangladeshi military doctor attends to a local patient at a way-station for internally displaced persons. United Nations Mission in the Sudan (UNMIS)
Juba, Sudan, 22 December 2005, UN Photo